Category Archives: creativity

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Crazy genius

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the crazy genius. So many times we see talented, creative individuals struggle with mental health issues – depression, anxiety, addiction. Some of the most brilliant artists of our generation have had tragic endings to their lives, most recently and notably Robin Williams which brought the conversation to a much more mainstream place. That struck an emotional response with so many of us. He made us laugh, we loved him like a friend, he was so funny. And yet his personal demons ultimately got the better of him. The outpouring of support and willingness to talk about a difficult subject and offer help to those who need it was the best thing that came out of Williams’ untimely death.

I found this piece in Authormagazine.com by a freelance writer and it resonated with me. It talks about the links between creativity and sensitivity, as many artists have elements of both. It also highlights the fact that so much of the darkness we sometimes experience in our creative lives is normal. I like her line: “This buildup of feeling is where art is born”. It reminds me of a quote I once saw on my nanny’s Facebook page: “Life is beautiful, not easy.”

I have an interest in this subject and have worked on many books over the years that explore some of these dark issues. Perfect Chaos by Linea and Cinda Johnson was a dual memoir by a daughter and mother about a brilliant young pianist who suffers from bipolar disorder. The pair have worked tirelessly within the mental health community to raise awareness of the condition and reduce the stigma associated with it. And Come Back by Claire and Mia Fontaine was also a mother-daughter memoir that delved into the issue of child sexual abuse. It was a Target book club bestseller and has sold over 200,000 copies. These authors have shared stories with me and others of how their books have helped people who felt lost and hopeless. Ultimately they send a positive message about triumph over adversity that is both hopeful and inspiring.

So embrace your inner crazy genius and let it take you somewhere you’ve never gone before. That is often the place where great things can happen.

And if you or someone you know is feeling like there’s no way out, here is the number and website for the national suicide prevention line: 1-800-273-8255 http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

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Good bad advice

For something that’s so subjective, fluid, and intuitive, writing sure has a lot of rules.   From the time you pick up your first pencil until they pry the keyboard from your cold, dead hands, you’re exposed to a litany of do’s and don’ts that are sometimes as confusing as they are meaningless.  (I’m sure someone told Faulkner it was a bad idea to include a chapter in his first novel that is one opaque sentence long.  I’m just as sure that he ignored them on his way to creating Nobel Prize winning masterpieces.)

You’ve been told not to end sentences with prepositions, not to split infinitives, not to dangle participles (because they’re scared of heights?), and so on, ad nauseam.  If you’re even the slightest bit OCD (like me) all these rules can paralyze you when you have a thesis to write, an edit memo to compose, or a novel you want to start.

Do all those rules matter?  Well, yes, they do.  A good writer is one who knows the rules and judiciously breaks them for effect.  You can easily tell a great craftsman who uses repetition to make a point from a sloppy hack who can’t be bothered to look up a synonym, for instance.  As someone who spends a lot of time line-editing proposals, I can tell you that in most cases, rule flouting is not intentional or effective. Rules

On the other hand, there’s a lot of bad advice being doled out by “experts” that, if followed, will consign you to the Dantean circle where boring, tepid, uninspired prose blandly tortures the poor souls  whose crimes against literature landed them there in the first place.  Which is why G. Doucette’s piece in the HuffPost cracked me up.

The point?  Rules are good.  Rules should be understood and followed.  Rules must sometimes be broken.

What are your favorite rules to ignore?

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Second Time Around

Have you heard of sophomore slump? A phenomenon that plagues authors, musicians, and artists of any stripe when their second thing is judged a disappointment by critics and/or fans.  Maybe because you’re going up against inflated expectations, created by the glory with which you first burst upon the scene. Because as hard as it is to live up to your heroes, it can be just as difficult to live up to yourself.

Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

The other theory is that your first thing—book, play, album—is amazing because it’s been stored up in you for so long. You’ve spent years thinking it over, dreaming of it, honing your skills to bring it into the world. Your second thing may not have germinated in you as long, or your authentic inspiration may be altered by feedback to the first thing or by your own anxiety over meeting the world’s expectations. On the other hand, don’t you learn a lot in the process of creating the first thing? Authors get better with every book, if they’re doing their job right and if their agent and editor are doing their jobs right.

Whatever the causes and pros/cons of the sophomore slump syndrome, authors need all the support they can get for their second title. The first book might make a name for you but the second book is where you start to make a career. And one online publication is turning its eye to this overlooked corner: along with the Whiting Foundation, Slate is founding a prize especially for second novels.

Now, the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List might not be as prestigious an award as a MacArthur Genius Grant or a Pulitzer Prize (yet) – as Slate itself acknowledged. “It’s akin to being retweeted by your literary idol, or finding out that the classmate you have a crush on thinks you’re cute. A mash note from the cosmos!” But as an avid backlist treasure hunter, I love that they’re looking at the last few years of published books, not just moving into the future with this honor. As Slate’s culture editor Dan Kois put it, ”Books don’t have an expiration date like a carton of milk; we believe that it’s worth going back to the shelves to discover what we’ve missed.”

What do you think? Do authors get better with each book? Any favorite sophomore novels you recommend?

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Those wide open spaces

Many years ago, before I was an agent, I directed all book and magazine publishing for a large newspaper syndicate.  While those of us who didn’t work directly in editorial for the syndicate—publishing, licensing, sales and the executive suite—had our individual offices, some of them very spacious, the heart of the staff worked in an open bullpen.  There, they communicated easily with each other as they edited the writers with whom they worked.  In fact the editorial staff who worked in my division also worked in an open bullpen-like area, writing and editing material and sharing their ideas with each other.

Last Tuesday, many, many years later, Miriam and I attended a party held by HarperCollins to celebrate the relocation of their offices from Midtown to the Financial District downtown. The layout was open and airy with people sitting in bullpen-like settings.  Some, who previously had window offices still had offices with glass walls so that they could see out and those passing by could see in.  This layout, we were told, was meant to foster a spirit of collaboration.  In addition, I would guess that there was an overall downsizing in terms of the number of square feet the company now occupies, which will enable the publisher to spend money on the titles they are publishing rather than on rent and maintenance of the many floors they took up at 10 East 53rd Street.  Bottom line, my general impression was a very positive one.

Fostering a spirit of collaboration and cooperation in this publishing climate can produce nothing but solid results, in my opinion.  Sure, there is some resistance to this layout—those who previously had privacy don’t have it any more, certainly not as much.  But the benefits include a sense of team building and a  collegial environment.  I think growth will be the ultimate result here and I think this kind of organizational layout will become the norm in the years to come.

Of course, I am always curious as to what you, our readers, think of this idea and I look forward to your comments.

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Actors and writers, a mixed breed

I might have mentioned at some point on the blog that I was a child actress. It’s a part of my past I don’t talk about all that much, but I started auditioning when I was eight and worked pretty steadily until I was almost eighteen. Sometimes it feels like another life, it was so long ago now, but I was a professional actress in commercials, films, on stage, and I was even on a soap opera for a year. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with many great actors, some of whom have gone on to write books (I would love to sign up a client from my acting days, and recently had coffee with a woman I auditioned with when we were kids!). One of those actors is Andrew McCarthy. We did a cute television film together called The Beniker Gang. I think you can still occasionally find it on cable somewhere.

I was happy to see that Andrew has gone on to become a prominent and well-regarded travel writer in his older adult years. He also published a critically acclaimed travel memoir in 2012 called The Longest Way Home. So when I saw this article with him doling out writing advice on Writer’s Digest, I thought it was worth sharing.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to pass this on. First, he offers some solid suggestions for looking at the world through a creative and unique lens. And the advice he dispenses for travel writers is more widely applicable for any genre. Ideas like find your hook in the details, and focus on storytelling, are useful tips.

But more broadly, I like the emphasis on seeing where creativity can take us. Actors and writers have a lot in common. They hone their craft with the intention of engaging an audience, whether it’s a live audience at the theater, or a person curled up on their couch enjoying a good book. The goal is to enlighten, entertain, and elicit a reaction or feeling of engagement from the audience or reader. So, even though it’s been years since Andrew McCarthy and I worked together in a film, we still have a lot in common in our publishing careers. He tells stories, and I sell those stories with the purpose of sharing ideas with others. We’ve found a creative process that works for us.

My takeaway of this is that we should all listen to our inner creative voice, and be willing to go wherever it might lead us. What other outlets do you explore that help to keep your creative juices flowing?

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Of Mice and Franco

franco5

…and the crowd goes wild.

Last week I attended the current Broadway production of Of Mice and Men and was a little skeptical going into it. I love Steinbeck. And I was skeptical of whether Mr. James Franco – Hollywood hotshot, Gucci model, MFA-addict, director,  novelist, selfie apologist  – could bring to the role of George the gravitas and subtlety it deserves. I mean, the man is stepping into Gary Sinise’s shoes. And no one can compare with Sinise, not in my book (and not in the audiobook, which he narrates. I digress).

But maybe I should’ve given young James a little more benefit of the doubt. After all, a common literary thread runs through a lot of his endeavors, random and egomaniacal though they may seem – Faulkner is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps maybe pursuing other creative interests is of benefit to a writer’s abilities. Perhaps directing a movie develops a writer’s understanding of narrative pacing. Maybe taking on different roles as an actor enhances a novelist’s ability to bring different characters to life on the page.

Who I am I to look askance on anyone who runs whole-heartedly after their interests, even if those interests don’t seem to line up neatly. Maybe our culture is learning to appreciate Renaissance men – and women – and in future we won’t be so eager to identify people (or ourselves) with “doctor” “poet” “teacher” “painter, sticking them inside a box labelled with one vocation.franco4

And I have to admit – the show was great. Franco conducted himself admirably as one of a very talented cast. Maybe the real reason behind my anti-Franco bias is that I’m jealous of him for having more than one talent! The only thing I’m good at is selfies. At least we have that in common.

What do you think? Does it make you a better writer to pursue other creative outlets? Or do you view that as time that could be better spent on your writing?

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Trains, planes, reading and writing

I love long train trips almost as much as I hate flying.   To me, there is something both soothing and exciting about zipping across a changing landscape in a powerful machine that hasn’t lost contact with the ground.  Whereas planes are claustrophobic, uncomfortable (unless you don’t need to put your kid through college and  you fly first class), and occasionally panic inducing, trains are throwbacks to a slower, more genteel age when no one expected you to get to where you needed to be so fast that you had to fight jet lag for days once you got there.

I also love reading on trains.  One of my fondest travel memories is of racing through Look Homeward, Angel in a mostly empty compartment on a trip from Zurich to Bruges.  Not that I’m such a seasoned world traveler, but I really enjoy the vaguely surreal dislocation of reading about America while traveling abroad.  And this feeling, I find, is heightened by the foreign and sometimes oddly familiar scenery you glimpse when you’ve snagged a good window seat.

I’m not a writer, but I can only imagine that the sensations and emotional states I’ve experienced while riding railroads in the U.S. and around the world are fairly common and that they might serve to rev up the creative process.  That’s why I dig the idea of Amtrak offering a writing residency for writers.   If I were writing a novel, I’d book my ticket to California, pack up my laptop, a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and hit the rails.

What about you guys?  Do you think you could write on a train?  Would you want to?

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Writing your way to a better idea

One of the hardest things for writers is the process of coming up with an idea. And understandably so. Finding a topic doesn’t just happen, and so when I had to write creative papers for my college courses, each one started the same way: with a brainstorming session.

The mind is a funny thing. Our brains are capable of making some astounding—not to mention bizarre–associations, and when you let your thoughts run wild, that random stream of consciousness is likely to result in some pretty interesting ideas. There are a million and one different brainstorming techniques out there. In fact, brainstorming has evolved to become a bit of a science—seriously just type the word into Wikipedia and see—but I usually find the simplest methods to be the most effective.

Freewriting is one such method. Even if you can’t think of anything to write at first, the simple act of putting pen to paper can get those creative juices flowing. Clear your mind. Let go. Write. It may take a while to get going, and you may only end up writing “I have no idea what to write” for the first ten minutes of your freewriting session. But that’s encouraged. The ideas will come if you let them, if you keep churning out sentence after sentence.

If you’re having trouble, try doing some more in-depth research on freewriting and other brainstorming techniques. I find instructive tips such as this one to be very helpful. Not every thought you have during a brainstorming session will be gold. In fact, most will be absurd or downright nonsensical. Just remember, it only takes one good idea for the whole brainstorming session to be worth it. Be patient and have fun. It works. How do you think I came up with the idea for this post?

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When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

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Kickin’ It Old School

Over the past month we’ve had some scheduled upgrades and maintenance take place on our server. Sometimes this means that we haven’t had access to our email or –horrors!- the Internet for as much as three hours at a time! Work screeches to a halt, thumbs are twiddled, hair is pulled. How can we get any work done without WiFi?

Oh yeah. People used to work like this every single day. And I’m not even talking about prehistoric hunters and gatherers, or even hardy homesteaders proving out their land in the Ozarks. I’m thinking of the not-so-distant days before e-books and Kindles, before Outlook and Firefox, before Post-Its and Keurigs. The good old days of penciled manuscripts and ink-penned contracts! Ernest Hemingway scrawling in a Paris café, Margaret Mitchell pounding away on this typewriter and using her finished pages to prop up her wobbly couch (or so Wikipedia assures me).

I don’t know that the DGLM office will be investing in typewriters or quills any time soon, but we did find worthwhile ways to spend our analog time. Some of us caught up on reading submissions (on pre-loaded Kindles, natch). Some of us went through the ominous to-file stack that we’ve been ignoring since Thanksgiving. Some of us thought about blog posts we could write when the Internet returns…

What are your tips for non-digital productivity?